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From Issue #6 December 20, 2012

Majestic Espresso

When Italians say coffee, they mean espresso. There is no other kind.

By Marco Tabini Twitter icon 

My earliest memories are of the customers passing through my mother’s coffee shop in our small town in northwest Italy. Office workers, with their crisp suits and brusque manners. Retirees, with their slow gait and plenty of time on their hands. And the owners of neighboring shops, who usually showed up around lunchtime and always complained about the economy — but who, somehow, still had money for a daily croissant (or two). I sat by a rickety old gas stove and watched them come and go.

The common link was espresso. The shop sold pastries and savories, and drinks of both the soft and hard kind; there was enough variety to please just about any taste. But everyone who walked in the door — save a handful of tea drinkers — ended up with coffee in some form. And when Italians say “coffee,” especially in a café, they mean “espresso.” There is no other kind.

A cup of espresso was the center of a ritual that acted as a welcome blip on the radar of an otherwise busy day. My enjoyment, however, was completely different: Sitting behind the counter, probably inhaling carbon monoxide from the balky gas stove, I could admire my mom as she tamed the espresso machine. Those tiny cups of coffee took on an almost mystical meaning for me.

The fire-breathing dragon

A professional espresso machine — in my mind, always the Machine — is intimidating in function and involved to use. I used to liken the Machine to the star beast of a mythical circus of the kind you would find in the pages of a fantasy book by Hickman and Weis. Manhandled, it would defend itself by spewing dangerously hot liquid, billowing clouds of steam rising from it like smoke from the mouth of a fire-breathing dragon; but it could also be capable of extreme gentleness, pushing out a shot of espresso one drop at a time while growling quietly in the background.

Like a wild beast, it demanded constant care and feeding. Smooth performance required copious amounts of water and natural gas (“gaz de ville seulement,”1 declared the label on the intake manifold — slightly incongruous for a machine made and used in Italy), and daily cleanings for all sorts of internal parts. And, like a wild beast, it could be dangerous to be around: A momentary lapse in attention was all that was needed to shower the unsuspecting operator with scalding pressurized water that left quite the mark. I have the scars to prove it.

This danger, mystery, and patronage conspired to make espresso seem to me like a very adult beverage. Kids were allowed alcohol in carefully rationed quantities on special occasions like Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but coffee was strictly off-limits. Home espresso machines, at least ones capable of making good coffee, were a rare commodity when I was growing up, and no barista in his or her right mind would dare serve espresso to a child, for fear that…well, nobody really knew. Grownups simply agreed that coffee and children didn’t mix.

The ability to walk into a coffee shop and simply ask for a cup became a rite of passage. Its holiness was higher than confirmation for a Catholic; its importance greater than school exams. It represented the acceptance of a young person into adulthood, and, unlike drinking alcohol, it was never frowned upon, regardless of the time of day or the condition of the consumer. It was something whose mystique all the kids I knew looked forward to.

The right beans, the right roast

In my case, the excitement was redoubled by the fact that I got to watch people make coffee all day. If you’ve only ever walked into a coffee shop and ordered a coffee, the operation of an espresso machine seems like a humdrum activity — the kind you would think any person could perform. Pull a lever or push a button and out comes a shot of espresso, ready for the serving.

Not so. Pulling a shot is but the closing act in a sequence of preparatory steps that often starts weeks before customers walk into the shop. A good barista — one who cares about the craft — starts by selecting good beans, and this, in turn, begins with finding a reputable distributor. A number of specialized coffee places create their own blends and roast their own beans, but even those who choose to buy directly from a single supplier do so only after picking one that can guarantee consistency, and their loyalty has limits: If their chosen brand fails to provide adequate quality, they’ll often switch to a competing supplier at the drop of a hat.

A good espresso blend has been processed to a medium roast; the beans should have the color of bittersweet chocolate, with a slight sheen of essential oils on their surface. Dark-roasted beans produce a bitter taste because of the excessive caramelization of the sugars in them; contrary to popular opinion, a dark coffee doesn’t produce a “stronger” espresso, but only one that tastes like burnt earth. As my mom once exclaimed after trying Starbucks for the first time, you might as well grab a handful of dirt from your garden, drop it in a cup of hot water, and save some money.2

Few other aspects of the bean have real impact on the quality of your coffee. “Fair trade” product may make you feel good about the ethical choices you make, but it’s not going to make your shot smell or taste better. The same goes for organic coffee: It might well be a good decision for your health, but you can make an excellent espresso without it.

Pressure bearing down on me

The perfect cup often starts early in the morning, when the machine is roused from its lumbering sleep and its boilers are allowed to come to life and reach the optimal pressure and temperature — between 92° and 96° centigrade (198° to 205°F), and about 1 bar (14.5 psi).3

While the beast feeds, the barista will start working on the grinder, which needs to be calibrated daily to account for variances in atmospheric conditions brought on by changes in the weather. A difference of a few percentage points in the humidity of the air can easily cause the grinder to produce a slightly coarser powder, resulting in watery espresso, or a finer one that ends up clogging the filters and causing the machine to overextract the shots.

To avoid problems later in the day, the barista then starts making shot after shot to make sure that everything works properly, tweaking things here and there until the perfect shot is pulled every time. Nobody drinks these coffees, of course, and, except for the occasional test sip that is immediately spit out, they are tossed. On a bad day, when the machine is acting up or the grinder is being particularly stubborn, this could mean two dozen or more shots down the drain — and a particularly annoyed barista.

Stoking the fire

Even throughout the day, the barista’s job goes far beyond making coffee. Although the majority of the homework that makes pulling a good shot possible has already been taken care of during the morning ablutions, machinery can be temperamental and produce the occasional bad espresso. Baristas must be forever vigilant, and never allow those shots to reach the bar: Nothing is more humiliating than a customer who sends a cup back because it doesn’t have enough crema or because it tastes off — except maybe a customer who doesn’t return because they didn’t enjoy their shot.

By the same token, coffees must never be allowed to linger. The expression process works by forcing hot water under pressure through the ground beans, causing them to release a variety of essential oils, sugars, and other aromatic compounds that, together, make the taste profile of your espresso.

The moment the newly pulled shot leaves the machine, all these substances begin to deteriorate. Oils go rancid, sugars oxidize, and a host of nasty byproducts turn a superb espresso into a merely passable one in seconds. This is one of the many reasons I always order my cup at the bar, and never wait at a table for it to be delivered.4 And it’s another reason Americans mask espressos with milk: When made to go, it’s guaranteed to taste bad.

From the point of view of the drinker, a good espresso starts with good looks and a good smell. The crema — the protein foam that gathers at the top of the cup — should look thick (but not so thick as to make up most of the shot) and possess a rich, brown color. The coffee should smell pleasant, and provide a rich, complex aroma that lingers in your nostrils even after several seconds.

What does a good shot taste like? Each person has different preferences, but all espresso lovers agree on one thing: A good shot shouldn’t taste bitter or acidic. Instead, the liquid should simply taste not sweet; once in your mouth, the taste profile should change, starting with a strong impression on the tip of your tongue and ending with a lingering aftertaste that can stay with you for as long as 20 minutes, constantly reminding you of just how good (or, as the case may be, how bad) your coffee was.

Given its popularity, it should be no surprise that the espresso has so many variants, even without bringing milk into the equation. For example, a ristretto is made with less water, retaining all the flavor and kick of a full shot5; a doppio contains two shots; a marocchino has a bit of milk froth and cocoa powder; and so on.

Sugar should be a personal preference, not a necessity. Plenty of Italians like to sweeten their coffee to enrich its flavor; in fact, watching a spoonful of sugar as it tries to sink through the crema, like a rock trying to penetrate the mantel of a thick layer of lava, is a great way to measure how good an espresso is without tasting or smelling it.6

The barista’s day isn’t done when the last customer leaves. In the evening, the beast once again demands the attention of its master. Everything that comes into contact with coffee or dairy undergoes a thorough cleaning to make sure that any leftover grounds or milk solids won’t accidentally taint tomorrow’s coffees and cappuccinos with an off taste that no amount of grinder adjustment can fix.

The sweet elixir of life

The best thing about espresso is that it is an everyday luxury. Unlike just about any other libation, coffee is good at practically every hour and is a way for many to mark the major events of the day. You take one in the morning to get the old noodle off the ground; one at lunch to help with digestion; and one in the afternoon to fight the temptation to crawl under your desk for a quick nap. A shot of espresso is a mood-altering experience that is both pleasant and socially acceptable for just about everybody.7

There are many rules that say what a “good espresso” is — why, some people have even managed to turn tasting into a tasteless sport. In the end, the most important thing about an espresso is that consuming it should be a pleasurable experience; a bad cup will sour your mood and ruin your day, but a good shot has the potential to turn an otherwise unremarkable day into a great one — a veritable cup of pure, unadulterated joy.

Photo by James Gose.

  1. Literally, “only [use] town gas,” which means a natural-gas feed. 

  2. Editors’ note: Marco’s mother is clearly a woman of great insight. 

  3. Note that this is just the pressure in the boiler, created by heating the water. It is different from the pulling pressure, which is created by a water pump when a shot is being pulled and which should be 8 to 10 bars (116 to 145 psi). 

  4. While the notion of a to-go cup has spread in Italy (say, da portare via or da asporto, if you must), the vast majority of coffee has always been consumed in shops. 

  5. Caffeine dissolves readily in hot water and is always the first thing to come out of coffee. The “Swiss decaffeination” process works by soaking green beans in warm water. Thus, a shorter espresso doesn’t necessarily mean less caffeine. 

  6. If you need sugar to get a bitter pull to go down, you’re much better off looking for a new barista and coffee shop. 

  7. Tea drinkers may disagree, but just ask them about the particulars of making a truly fine cup of tea, and you’ll hear similar amounts of detail and tinkering. 

Marco Tabini is an entrepreneur and writer based in Toronto, Canada. For the last 10 years, he has been the owner and publisher of php|architect magazine, a position which he has just left to bootstrap a startup that focuses on Web-enabled APIs.

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